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Flanked by foreign dignitaries, Karzai announces a runoff

Two months to the day after Afghanistan’s badly flawed presidential elections, the stalemate is over.

Karzai also refused to give up his claim to have won outright in the Aug. 20 elections. His decision to hold a runoff was due entirely to his concern for the Afghan people, he said.

“We will leave it to the Afghan people to decide who the winner was [in the first round],” he said. “Whether I was the winner or not, I prefer the interests of Afghanistan to my own personal interests.”

Kai Eide expressed his pride in the U.N.’s efforts during the election, which, he said, without a hint of irony, “have led us to where we are today.”

The U.N. in general, and Kai Eide in particular, have been the focus of a tremendous amount of controversy over the past weeks. Eide’s deputy, Peter Galbraith, publicly accused Eide of covering up fraud in the elections to benefit Karzai. Galbraith was sacked by Eide in late September, and has been conducting a loud and bitter campaign against his former boss since his departure from Kabul.

Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, the distant fourth-place runner-up in the elections, had few good words to say about the U.N. in his talk before the Atlantic Council in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 15.

“No one is going to call [the first election] fair or legitimate,” he said. “The United Nations dropped the ball and a group of Afghans stole the election. Lessons to be learned in the future is that the United Nations cannot be trusted to conduct free and fair elections.”

This is unfortunate, since the same bodies who oversaw the first round of elections will have to cobble together a second vote in just over two weeks.

Ballot papers have already been printed, and some preparations have been made. Kerry emphasized several times during the press conference that the international community and ISAF stood ready to guarantee security.

But everyone skirted around the issue of fraud.

One election expert expressed serious doubt that the runoff would accomplish its unstated but widely understood purpose: to erase the stigma of illegitimacy that hung over Karzai after the first election.

“It could well be even worse,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “There will be few or no international observers, the turnout will be miniscule, security could be terrible and, in the end, Karzai will win anyway.”

There is little doubt of Karzai’s eventual success, especially in the higher reaches of the diplomatic community. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told CNN just days ago that “the likelihood of [Karzai] winning a second round is probably pretty high.”

It remains to be seen how many Afghans will go to the polls on Nov. 7. Disaffection is rampant among voters, many of whom have observed the past two months of wrangling with something close to disgust.

“The foreigners will decide everything anyway,” said one young journalist, watching the panoply of dignitaries surrounding Karzai at Tuesday’s press conference.

But there are some who see the runoff as the only way to redeem democracy in the eyes of ordinary Afghans.

“I think a second round is good for democracy in my country,” said Asar Hakimi, a young journalist in Kabul. “Power will be in the hands of the people, not warlords and ethnic leaders.”